Go Beyond Virtue Signaling to Combat Discrimination

We must go well beyond virtue signaling to fight discrimination and racism now.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

During our recent challenging and disturbing times in America regarding remarkable racial injustices, discrimination, and police violence that climaxed with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many are certainly outraged and deeply disturbed by the daily news reports and video evidence of horrific victimization of our citizens of color, especially African American men.

Many people, especially privileged Caucasians from the middle and upper classes, wish to offer their solidarity with people of color and others who are often marginalized and oppressed. Solidarity essentially means, "I stand with you." They want to make clear that they are allies with them and are sensitive to their concerns. These statements of solidarity are certainly important and necessary so that people make a stand for equality and justice and decry episodes of racism, discrimination, violence, and victimization. However, it can be a hollow gesture when these statements are motivated by virtue signaling alone.

Virtue signaling attempts to demonstrate that you are virtuous for the sake of optics and impression management. During difficult racial tensions, for example, privileged people (such we wealthier Caucasians) may wish to proclaim that they are not racists or discriminatory in any way and that they are “woke.” Their efforts may be sincere but they may also only be motivated by concerns regarding impression management. They may be happy to demonstrate their virtues or “wokeness” on social media and other online outlets but not necessarily do anything more to help reduce discriminatory or victimizing behavior. They may even benefit from these awful behaviors enjoying white privilege. Many people who have been caught engaging in ugly racial discrimination or benefiting from it may have said all the right things on social media for example.

Much research has underscored the challenges of implicit bias. All of us experience implicit bias to some degree and in many circumstances. We all over generalize, stereotype, and judge others based on all sorts of characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We all make sweeping judgments that are too quick and based on too little information. None of us are perfect in this regard. We must be aware of our implicit bias and find ways to move in directions that are healthy and productive to confront them and act better. It is a process that perhaps never ends but hopefully we get better at it over time and are more sensitized to and thoughtful about our many biases.

In my personal and professional world, I try to remind myself that everyone is sacred, children of the divine, all are equally important and that the Golden Rule (i.e., treat others as you wish to be treated) is a very good rule regardless of one’s religious or spiritual traditions, beliefs, and practices. The Namaste greeting from the Hindu tradition (i.e., the sacred and divine in me recognizes the sacred and divine in you) is a powerful reminder of how we should experience and treat others. Additionally, within my own faith tradition, we try to always highlight preferential options for the poor and marginalized. Am I perfect in these efforts? Of course not. Do I need to work harder at them? Absolutely! 

We likely feel most comfortable with people who are a lot like us in terms of language, background, culture, ethnicity, race, religion, political leanings, and so forth finding comfort and solace with others who share commonalities with us. After all, when you meet someone new you typically look for commonalities searching for what places, people, and traditions you share in common. Anyone who we experience as “other” or “different” from our own tribe is especially vulnerable to our implicit biases. We have to remember this important fact and act accordingly with careful vigilance.

A nice social media post about supporting oppressed people might be a start but it certainly is not sufficient to improve our torn and fractured world and community. True solidarity goes well beyond virtue signaling. Action is needed as well as an honest appraisal of our own biases and imperfections too and approaching these matters with humility and openness might help as well. 

So, what do you think?

Copyright 2020, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP.